Syria crisis: UK draws up contingency military plans

The body of a victim of a suspected chemical weapons attack is lowered into a grave in Hamoria, Damascus (21 August 2013) The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and blames rebel fighters

The UK is drawing up contingency plans for military action in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, Downing Street has said.

No 10 stressed any action would be "proportionate", lawful and follow agreement with international allies.

David Cameron will also announce later whether Parliament is to be recalled, amid growing pressure from MPs.

A chemical attack is reported to have taken place on Wednesday near Damascus, killing more than 300 people.

Syrian rebels say the Assad government was responsible, but Syria's foreign minister Walid Moualem said on Tuesday this was a "total lie" and accused the US of using it as an "inaccurate excuse" to intervene in the two-year military conflict in the country.

'International law'

Mr Cameron has returned to London, having cut short his summer holiday to deal with the crisis.

A No 10 spokesman said the UK was considering a "proportionate response" to the attack and was considering a "range of evidence" including that from UN weapons inspectors who visited five sites around Damascus on Monday.


Whitehall officials say no firm decision is likely to be taken on how Britain will respond to last week's alleged chemical attack in Syria until at least Wednesday.

That is when David Cameron will be chairing a session of the National Security Council, attended by military and intelligence chiefs and senior ministers. It follows intense consultations between London and Washington, with Downing Street keen to stress the two countries are acting in concert.

Any military response, if it's decided on, is most likely to be confined to a one-off or limited guided missile strikes on selected Syrian military targets using Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US Navy warships stationed hundreds of miles away in the eastern Mediterranean.

US vessels there are reported to have about 400 such missiles onboard, while a Royal Navy submarine in the region can also carry cruise missiles.

But Russia, Syria and Iran have all issued strong warnings against any Western military action.

But Downing Street stressed that no decisions had been taken on any response amid discussions with international partners and any action would be "within a strict legal framework" and "within international law".

Mr Cameron is to chair a meeting of the National Security Council - attended by military and intelligence chiefs and senior ministers - on Wednesday, while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has cancelled a visit to Afghanistan.

It is understood the most likely military response to Wednesday's suspected chemical weapons attack would be a one-off or limited guided missile strikes on Syrian military targets fired from US Navy warships.

The Labour Party and several Conservative MPs have insisted the prime minister must explain to Parliament the objectives and legal basis for any UK involvement or co-operation before it happens.

Although the Commons voted on UK military intervention in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, there is no legal obligation for the government to get parliamentary approval before committing British forces.

The prime minister has the final say on deploying British troops in conflicts, using Royal Prerogative powers.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said it was right to consider all options but he was "not prepared to write the government a blank cheque" with regards to committing British forces and MPs must be allowed to vote on any proposed steps.

Residents gather around a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of UN chemical weapons experts at one of the sites of an alleged poison gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya on 26 August 2013 UN chemical weapons inspectors spent nearly three hours in the suburb of Muadhamiya in western Damascus on Monday.
Image taken from amateur video footage, a UN inspector, right, speaks to a man about the alleged chemical weapon attack at a makeshift hospital in Muadhamiya, Damascus, on 26 August 2013 The inspectors visited two hospitals and interviewed survivors, eyewitnesses and doctors over last week's suspected chemical attack near the Syrian capital.
Still from amateur video posted online shows a presumed UN staff member measuring and photographing a canister in the suburb of Muadhamiya in Damascus on 26 August 2013 Amateur video was posted online apparently showing a UN inspector measuring and photographing a canister.

"Is it a broad objective of changing the civil war or trying to remove (President) Bashar al-Assad or is it a more limited objective of trying to degrade his capability to use these weapons with impunity?" he asked.

Parliament is due to return from its summer recess on Monday but more than 60 MPs have signed a motion calling for a one-off session before that to discuss the crisis.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said he did not believe the action being discussed would have much effect on the Assad government's military capability and would further strain relations with Russia, a key ally of Syria.

"Intervention in the Middle East in the past has not exactly been in our best interests," he told the BBC News Channel.

Mr Cameron spoke to a number of foreign leaders over the bank holiday weekend, including US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French and German counterparts.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said the use of chemical weapons is a "moral obscenity" which cannot be ignored but Russia has said there is no evidence an attack had taken place or who was responsible.

'Fabricated' footage

Moscow has warned any intervention without a UN mandate would be "a grave violation of international law".

The UN Security Council is made up of 15 states, including five permanent members - China, Russia, France, the US and the UK - who have the power to veto any resolution.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the BBC it would be possible for the UK and its allies to respond without the UN's unanimous backing.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said enduring controversy over the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 should not stop politicians from helping the Syrian people.

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Map showing the areas where the alleged chemical attacks took place in Syria
  • 01:15: 21 August (10:15 GMT 20 Aug): Facebook pages of Syrian opposition report heavy fighting in rebel-held eastern districts of the Ghouta, the agricultural belt around Damascus
  • 02:45: Opposition posts Facebook report of "chemical shelling" in Ein Tarma area of the Ghouta
  • 02:47: Second opposition report says chemical weapons used in Zamalka area of the Ghouta
  • Unverified video footage shows people being treated on pavements in the dark and in a makeshift hospital
  • Reports say chemical weapons were used in Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west, but this is not confirmed
  • Syrian government acknowledges military offensive in the Ghouta but denies chemical weapons use
line break

More on This Story

Syria conflict


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  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    US-backed insurgency already underway to destablise Russia-backed Assad regime & create cassus belli ('chem weapon red line').

    This is an Arab League backed insurgency (demanding democracy after using tanks on their own arab spring) to remove the only remaining secular government in the area. US probably dislikes all sides in it but it can't help itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    IMHO, the decision to become involved was made years ago as Syria was one of several countries on the USA 'hit-list' - all that was needed was the 'excuse'.

    It may not matter which side used them, or used them first - now the warmongers have their excuse for intervention.

    Iraq re-played in Syria - and it puts the USA closer to attacking Iran which, as we all know, is the prime target.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Answer is to do this by the United Nations.

    If it fails - then it is the UN's fault (Russia's and China's. (not ours).
    If it succeeds then the UN is not a choclolate teapot.

    I believe most people would rather go that route than chance WWIII.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    The UK government know they can do what they want as the majority of the population couldn't care less what happens. Look at Iraq, have a bit of a protest march but still re-elect the people who lied about it in the first place. The apathy in the UK is a gift to politicians who essentially have carte blanche to do whatever they want with no fear of domestic reprisal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    This is rubbish. Parliament should refuse to sanction action. Using missiles to 'disable runways and command installations' does nothing to stop the use of chemical weapons which can be fired from an artillery weapon. If hit, the resultant damage could well release the toxins. This is just another WMD excuse to get someone. Did we learn nothing from IRAQ ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    What exactly is an "Appropriate" response to a country which has used one of the three "Weapons of Mass Destruction". You don't put a contingent of troops in. You either launch a total Blitzkrieg assault or you stay out. I've done exercises in NBC gear in the UK and there were several heat exhaustion casualties. Using them in the Gulf could bring fatalities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    You only have to see the strategic location of Syria in relation to Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran to understand why the Western bloc wants a pretext to establish an active military presence there. Are "chemical weapons" any worse than depleted uranium warheads? Doesn't matter - it's about war as an economic imperative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    David Cameron is sounding like a war monger again, does he not understand that when we interfier we always make things worse than before, what is he going to do give weapons to al-qaeda backing rebels and what if they decide to retaliate againts us in some way do we want another 7th July

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    71.Craig - "If a child in a classroom runs around with fly spray spraying other children, you'll tell him off and take it off him. If you don't he'll keep doing it when your back is turned and the other children will suffer because you failed to take action."

    ...And if Tommy was doing the spraying, but blamed it on Timmy? Would you still take action against Timmy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    If Cameron had to take up his rifle and kit he would not be so quick to cry "War". If the USA want to go to war then that is up to them, it is nothing to do with us.
    Cameron, after all doesn't have an army to send he got rid of them shows just how clever he is, Doh.
    Keep out of Syria, if they want to kill themselves then let them get on with it, Britain is not big enough to take more passengers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Nice to see UK being honest once in a while and trying to help alleviate suffering. assad dictator has killed more than 100 thousand citizens and how can we stay silent? are we human beings when we don't stop other humans being massacred? shame on people who say we should stay away, would you stay away if this was happening to your families? do you have no respect for other humans? or r u racist?

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Assad is winning the war, the Al-Queda supported rebels are losing on every front. Assad knows the use of chemical weapons will bring the "indignant" intervention of the west and he will then lose everything. What was the gain for Assad? The only faction with anything to gain using chemical weapons is the rebels because with the intervention of the west it's the ONLY way they can now not lose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Despite the awful events in Syria, the question needs to be asked why we should get involved. There are disgusting acts carried out all over the world by governments on their own people. Are we to be world police?
    If anything is to be done, it needs to be mandated & partaken in, by the UN.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Taken from wikipedia:

    "The U.S. policy on the use of chemical weapons is to reserve the right to retaliate"

    That's right... America reserves the right to use chemical weapons.

    Vote up if you've spotted the hypocrisy

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Have we learnt nothing from wars in Iraq and other middle-eastern states?

    Economical/political sanctions are far more effective than going to war. Again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    David Cameron : You don't need to recall Parliament on Thursday, just read the comments on here. NOT going to war is a no brainer.

    Now go back to Cornwall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    If this attack is to be legal it would need a resolution from the UN Security Council which will never happen. So essentially we would be acting illegally under international law, much like we did in Iraq.

    Hague et al. are all too willing to disregard international law when it suits them but use the same law to refer people to war crimes tribunals. If that isn't hypocrisy I don't know what is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I thought we didn't have any money? That's what he's told us in the NHS causing misery to millions, when the sick have to wait for an ambulance or in a queue at A&E. "There's no money, got to make' efficiency savings' fella". Plenty of money for war isn't there? Bevan had them right - or half right as he only talked of the tories. All modern politicians are lower than vermin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Something has to be done. I can't watch TV pictures of any more women and children being gassed and slaughtered. Maybe some of you can. How is it nothing to do with us? We are all part of the human race. If you were in a foreign country and you saw children being attacked in the street, would you turn the other cheek then?

    I hope you sleep safe and well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Intervening won't improve anything just like it didn't with Libya, Afghanistan yadda yadda yadda. It is not our fight.

    Let the Middle East sort it's own problems out. The people will resent troops and air strikes more than the lack of them.


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